karatekidOrange lightLet’s get the most important stuff out of the way first, shall we, because time is money, life is short, the clock is ticking, nobody lives forever and proponents of journalism’s inverted pyramid structure make it pretty damn clear you should put the most pertinent stuff at the top and the bits below become less and less relevant until lo and behold you realise you’re reading about – and strangely interested in – Lindsay Lohan’s latest probation violation and the not so subtle homoerotic tension at the seedy, sleazy heart of the Twilight movies. Don’t say it can’t happen. Especially if you keep reading this blog.

So, not being the kind of guy who likes to break [email protected], make sure you’re sitting down or holding onto a rail or something because here comes the big shock about director Harold Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid. In what must go down as one of the most startling, most world-rocking, most pants wetting “is there a God because these guys are really fucking with me” revisions in cinematic history since, well, ever, the classic line from 1985’s dodgy cult classic original – “wax on, wax off” – has (gasp!) changed.

In Zwart’s meddlesome new version – meddlesome because he changes the setting, changes the characters, changes the dialogue and changes any number of other things too, even the (gasp!) haircuts and skin colours of the characters, as if the movie had some legitimate stake to originality and wasn’t simply another transparent attempt to repackage a dusty old franchise with new wrapping for a younger, presumably dumber generation, which it almost certainly is – the line becomes, wait for it, “jacket on jacket off.”

Shocked? Miffed? Reaching for the voodoo doll? Preparing a fatwa for Zwart and his minions? Getting ready to write a strongly worded letter to your local rag in the desperate hope that this sort of creative fallacy will never happen again?

Nah, me neither. There is however bound to be some perverse group of fan boys out there who actually take this stuff to heart. A caller last week to Melbourne’s MTR station comes to mind, who jumped on the line to lambast me for bagging the original movie and then acted all pathetically broken hearted and despondent – perhaps it wasn’t an act – when I informed him of the aforementioned change to the passages of cinema’s Karate For Kids bible, the alteration of “wax on wax off.” His voice fell. His mood changed instantly.

So consider the first chunk of this review a tribute of sorts to the presumably endless devotion of The Karate Kid peeps to a franchise that was never very good to begin with. Good on ’em. 

I’ve long said that this sort of movie are the best kind to remake – the movies that leave, to put it diplomatically, significant room for improvement. While the original Karate Kid had its moments, all of them involving the calm confected wisdom of the placid but ass-kicking-when-he-wants-to-be Mr Miyagi, it nevertheless falls into this category.

Mr Miyagi is now Mr Han (Jackie Chan), a shy maintenance man who teaches a young upstart the ways of karate, which, the young’un is disappointed to discover, is closer to Zen Buddhism than Street Fighter 2. But more startling changes are afoot. Instead of the protagonist being a high school student who spends his alone time either pretending to practise marital arts or masturbating his way through the meaty curve of adolescence, the character is now a punk kid whose total mass of body hair rests solely atop his head.

To compensate for his younger age the character has a much cooler name – changed from Daniel to Dre – and he is played by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada (also executive producers).  Dre finds himself embroiled in a melodramatic romance and an against the odds triumph-n-prevail-via-violence comp during a time in his life when he should be reading comic books, asking mum for lolly bag money and avoiding cootie contamination in his cubby house.

Given their age, digesting the sexual energy between the protagonist and the object of his affections, a cute Chinese girl named Meiying (Wenwen Han) feels a little…disturbing. Mixed with action scenes that are a couple of punches more violent than most parents would like their impressionable young offspring to see, you get a movie that feels racier than it should: vaguely wrong at best and inappropriate at worst. If Will and Jada were intent on using The Karate Kid as a vehicle to springboard their son to stardom, surely they could have waited at least until the three of them sat down to have a talk about the birds and the bees. In other words, the actor (and the character) is too young for the part.

It makes sense, however, to update the central location to a more exotic place and this in turn gives the movie a glossy postcard feel about it. The new Karate Kid is based in Bejing, as it turns out, even though karate is Japanese but let’s not get into that. The movie’s working title was The Kung Fu Kid, which makes more sense but doesn’t have that ring of brand familiarity, and if it doesn’t have that ring then, well, why bother? These people aren’t trying to make great art.

And they don’t. The Karate Kid is generic and predictable, like we always knew it would be, and the narrative structure is engineered in such a way that you’re never pleased or surprised at the directions it takes because a) you saw them coming a mile away and b) they don’t have much of an impact, certainly no fist in the air moments of rooting for the underdog, which is what the story is all about. Dramatically the performances fail to hit the mark, although Jackie Chan looks the most comfortable he’s been in an English speaking movie in years. This is the sort of role he should be playing – the aging master – and it’s a welcome change from the slapstick shenanigans demanded of him in dross like The Spy Next Door and The Tuxedo.

The Karate Kid is, it should be noted, not the turkey it could have been. It’s surprisingly decent given it emenates from oeuvre of Harold Zwart, “oeuvre” an altogether too fancy word for the man who taunted us with The Pink Panther 2. Not the original sequel, of course. The (sigh) remake sequel.

Cheesy, instantly forgettable but at times fun, The Karate Kid provides passable off and on entertainment. Unsurprisingly, it plays best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Karate Kid’s Australian theatrical release date: Jule 1 (Vic and Qld) and July 8 (NSW, WA, SA)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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